Declan Mathews was raised on bad omens. His mom had once found a dead wren on the front porch, and the next morning a tornado shredded the house like confetti. His mom had said the wren was a sign, though Deck figured that being stationed in Kansas had been the bigger heads up. His parents saw it as a bad omen that he was born with blue eyes. That he, even from the beginning, had been different.
Today’s bad omen was from Chief Petty Officer Davis, who, like a judge about to deliver a verdict, wouldn’t look at the SEAL training class. Here came the chopping block.
Deck stared down at his hands, looking at the blisters and crusty red scabs. They looked better than his feet did, and there were no red and white lines up his arms to indicate infection, which was good. He was starting to feel dry along his shoulder blades, which meant it was time to go out to the surf and get “wet and sandy” before one of the cadre noticed and yelled at him to do it. The sand had chaffed his inner thighs as he ran the miles up and down the beach. A layer of calluses and a bowlegged gait worked to diminish the pain.
“We’re almost done,” Spencer, aka Speck, said next to him. He squinted at the wall clock, one eye swollen, a casualty of a log roll earlier that day.
“Still day six,” whispered Lowman, swaying back and forth in his chair. Deck didn’t think he was aware of the movement.
Deck didn’t know if Lowman or Speck was right. He’d lost count of the days. But they were meant to. Hell Week of BUD/S training to be a Navy SEAL was seven days with little food, plenty of running, sit ups, and a grand total of four hours of sleep. Seven days of being wet, sandy, and numb.
Deck looked again at Davis, who sat at the front of the classroom reading printouts. When he leaned forward to get a better look at the man’s face, he almost fell out of his chair. He jerked back upright but pulled too hard and bumped the empty desk behind him. The noise caught Davis’ attention, and he looked toward the door and then at Deck. Or rather toward Deck, because he still wasn’t making eye contact. Fuck.
Deck picked at his hand scabs and rolled his shoulders to loosen them up. He’d dislocated his left shoulder during first week of first phase, another log roll casualty. It was back in place but still felt off, like his muscles had wrapped around it too tightly to make sure it didn’t come out again.
If he were being cut from the class, they would send him to the review board to plead his case. He’d convince them to roll him back a class to try again. It meant doing another Hell Week, but completing BUD/S training was the first step to receiving his Trident and gaining his freedom to be himself.
“Petty Officer Mathews,” Davis said. Deck stood and reported class numbers. All the officers had rung out or were rolled back for medical. That placed Deck in charge of the class even though he was enlisted. A week after high school graduation, he’d started his training to become a MA, master-at-arms, affectionately known and hated as “shore police.” Now he was twenty-four, and though he wasn’t the oldest in the class, he had the earliest enlistment date.
The six years had felt like an extension of his youth. His dad had retired from the Air Force. Uncle Stan was career military Army. And Great Uncle Mike, now a tough New York City cop, was a Marine for twenty years. Active duty was the Mathews religion. They were berserkers, men determined to protect family and freedom, in that order. They were part of an ongoing constant of hidden American history.
Deck finished his verbal report and sat back down.
“Men, this is the smallest class we’ve had in five years. What is this country producing? It sure ain’t Navy SEALs.” Davis shook his head and stared at his readouts, making the class sweat.
Deck’s stats were good—all but one: swimming. He scraped by on the timed swims. He sank like a stone, and his limbs felt like bricks battering at the water. But he was getting better. During Third Phase the time limits would be heavily cut, and until then he would spend every extra minute in the water. He wasn’t going to worry about that. He had to focus on the moment right now and on staying awake.
Davis said something about dedication, and the tadpoles ho-hawed in response. “You are secure.” Lowman broke out in Spanish, cussing, but it sounded jubilant. Frankie the Otter, their best swimmer, laid his head on his desk and sobbed. Deck watched their reactions and wondered what the hell was going on until he smelled the pizza. Then it clicked into place. They’d made it. Hell Week was over. And the first hot food they got in over a week, pizza from the Hut, was being passed among them by the box. Deck kept two larges for himself, there was plenty, and he needed the carbs, like now. He realized the salty taste was his own tears as he tore into his first slice and listened to instructions. He had no clue what was on the pizza. Didn’t fucking care. It was hot, and it wasn’t a Snickers bar that someone had hid in the head or stuffed in their gear. One more week of Phase One, and then a week off for Thanksgiving before they started Phase Two.
He was the first Mathews to serve in the Navy, the first to survive Hell Week. Perhaps that would make up for being gay.
The commander acknowledged Deck’s salute. “Congrat-ulations on Hell Week, Mathews. At ease.”
“Thank you sir.” Deck soft-gripped his hands behind his back and waited to see why the commander had sent for him. He refused to read too much into it. He was too tired to do more than just respond appropriately. If the commander wanted hand springs, Deck was fucked.
“I’m glad to see your swim time improving,” the commander said, a subtle reminder of how close he was to not making it and that the commander knew all. The senior officer sat behind his desk. Sitting next to him was Chief Davis from Phase One and a civilian, possibly a contractor GS-13. Deck could just see him out of the corner of his eye. He could be a SEAL in street clothes, but if so he had impressively bad posture.
Deck nodded his head. “Sir.”
“I served briefly with your Uncle Ted in Desert Storm.”
“He’s family, sir, even if he is a Marine.”
Both Davis and the commander smiled at Deck’s joke. The commander tapped a knuckle on a manila folder on his desk. It probably had his whole family tree. All the way back to Lt. Jacob River Mathews, a cavalry officer during the Revolution. “I’m sure all the Mathews are saying the same about you.”
“That they are, sir.” The branch in-fighting had died down after 9/11, and there was a general sense of acceptance among his relatives and the different branches of the military. Until the Army played the Air Force in football, and then all civilities were blown to shit.
“We have a special project we would like you to consider.”
He’d just been told to jump; now he had to figure out in which direction and onto what. “Sir?”
“Some political heads have commissioned a war memorial for the new special warfare building at MacDill in Tampa.”
“Wasn’t that built five years ago, sir?”
“Seven. We’ve done our best to put it off as long as possible.”
The civilian in the corner laughed and slouched a bit further in his seat. Deck glanced at the man and then looked back at the commander. He wished he hadn’t looked. The man’s sexy smile had his whole body twitching with awareness. Deck locked down his response but fought off the retreat to full stone. If he overreacted, Davis would suspect something was up. He carefully moderated each movement.
“You going home to Idaho for the holidays, Seaman?”
“Yes, sir. My father retired north of Mountain Home Air Force Base.”
“Why Mountain Home?” asked the sloucher in the corner.
And since it was better to err on the side of regulations, Deck turned slightly to address the stranger. “Sir, it was their last station, and Mom couldn’t be bothered to move again.”
He laughed again and stood up before taking a step toward Deck. “Now I could definitely get used to a hottie like you calling me sir.” Bold as brass, in your face.
It was a test. Had to be. And Deck wasn’t going to fail now. “Thank you. I’ll remember to pass the compliment along to my mother.” He looked back to the commander, who was scrutinizing Deck’s response. Davis scowled and shifted in his seat like he’d gotten too much sand in his shorts. “Commander, you mentioned a war memorial?”
“Yes. This is Mason Cartwright. He is the artist in charge of the project. He says he needs a model for the sculpture.”
What the fuck? “Mr. Cartwright, you should consider using Lt. Kaoru or Petty Officer Lange. Both are recent SEALS who have honorably contributed to the history of—”
“I need a live model. Er, lack of tact. Sorry. Kaoru and Lange were both brave and honorable men. But I need to work with a 360 visual, not a flat photograph. Plus, to be quite honest, I need someone who won’t freak out if I stare at his ass.”
Definitely a test, and one he would fail miserably if he had to pose nude in front of this gorgeous man. He had to figure out a way to get out of this without drawing too much attention. He had a horrifying visual of standing nude and erect while Mason carved his body out of wood while the commander took notes of how often his dick twitched in response to Mason’s smile. Torture. Think, Deck. Think.
The commander had his record down to his sock size, so he couldn’t claim a religious reason for declining, and he had always believed in the adage about protesting too much. “Having someone stare at my ugly ass isn’t the scariest thing I’ve done this week. Not even close.”
“Knew you’d rise above,” the commander thumped his desk as if it was all settled and passed an official order across his desk to Deck. “Mr. Cartwright’s home is in eastern Idaho. You are to work out a schedule to stand for him during your breaks from training.”
“Sit for me,” Cartwright said.
The commander didn’t hear him. “Make sure you’ve finished before the end of Second Phase. You will not be given time off later.” As if it were some bonus or privilege to be giving up his Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks to travel to—Deck looked at the orders—Paris, Idaho. Where the hell was that?
The commander dismissed them. As soon as the senior officer’s door was closed, Davis put Deck at ease and started talking as if Cartwright wasn’t standing in the hallway with them. Yeah, Davis had an issue with this. “It’s the family likeness. All the Mathews look the same, but you’re neutral enough that there isn’t a specific ethnicity.” Davis had a master’s in education and thirteen years in special warfare, but he still talked like the redneck hick he’d been born as. “Not a test or any shit like that. They know you ain’t queer.” And without waiting for Deck’s salute, he did an about-face and stomped down the hall.
Deck turned to Cartwright and took his first good look. Cartwright wore faded blue jeans, work boots, and a faded, soft, blue plaid shirt rolled up at the sleeves. A tightly woven hemp choker with blue glass beads defined his chiseled neck and shoulders. His brown hair looked soft and long enough to bury hands in and tug. Sinewy and comfortable in his own skin, the guy was downright hot. “I apologize for his rude comment, Mr. Cartwright.”
“What, am I sixty? It’s ‘Mason’ or ‘hey, you’.” Mason had the softest eyes; even their color was hard to determine because it was so pale. “And you aren’t the one who made the comment, so don’t apologize.”
Deck held up the one page orders. “Is this for real?”
“Yep. Bronze, one-point-five ratio size. Paid half in advance.”
Deck held his hand out. “Declan Mathews. They call me Deck. Mostly.”
The dude’s eyebrows climbed at Deck’s apology and polite gesture. Mason stared a moment before shaking Deck’s hand. The guy probably had more calluses than all the cadre’s put together. Deck liked rough hands. He swallowed and ran his hand over his buzzed head to wipe away the fiery prickles of awareness. Mason wore his jeans low on his lithe hips. He was taller than Deck, not a hard thing to be since Deck was only five seven, but Mason wasn’t so tall that Deck felt little standing next to him.
“Well, Mason, if we’re going to work together, we should set some guidelines. I won’t model nude, and I’ll need flight coordinates for the nearest airport.” If he borrowed his dad’s Cessna, he could still spend as much time as possible with his family for the holidays. If life went according to schedule, he’d be deployed next Christmas with his SEAL team. A year later he would be out, and a welcoming family holiday for a gay son would be a Christmas miracle.
“It’s a military art piece for the United States, not a Greek tribute to war. Uniform required. And the airport? My backyard. Literally.” Mason smiled, and a dimple appeared in his left cheek. Deck swallowed the sudden desire to investigate how deep that dimple was with his tongue.
“Are there really more of you?”
Mason nodded toward the door, “He said ‘all the Mathews’.”
“Last count, still living there are two hundred and sixty-seven, not counting women or children. Over five hundred people at last year’s reunion.”
“It sounds intense.”
“It’s family.” And if they knew how Deck was looking at Mason with hunger churning in his gut, they wouldn’t be family any longer.